Some reminiscences about how in the world I got onto the BYU faculty

Some reminiscences about how in the world I got onto the BYU faculty April 16, 2021


A mountain in South Dakota
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, near Rapid City, South Dakota
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)




For what it’s worth:  I’ve just today agreed to participate in the 2021 edition of the annual FreedomFest, which, unusually, will be held this year in Rapid City, South Dakota.  (For a very long time, it’s been hosted in Las Vegas, Nevada.  But not this year.)  I’m slated to participate on a panel with Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  That should be quite fun, and I’m looking forward to it.  If your interests lean to libertarian economic thought and/or personal investment, this is a gathering that you might well enjoy quite a bit.  I always have.  The dates are 21-24 July 2021, although there is also a pre-conference tour available.




I’ve been woefully remiss in calling your attention to the interesting materials that have been appearing on the website of Evidence Central, so here are a trio of items for you to look at over the weekend or in coming days.  All are short and very user-friendly:


“Book of Mormon Evidence: Uto-Aztecan and Book of Mormon Languages”


“Book of Mormon Evidence: Barley”


“Book of Mormon: Wine and Vineyards”




I also feel it a duty to alert you, albeit sometimes just a bit tardily, to new items that have appeared on the important Neville-Neville Land blog.  Here are a couple of them:


“Elder Marion G. Romney identified the people of Latin America as descendants of the Lamanites”


“Jonathan Neville’s pants are on fire”




I like this, from the National Catholic Register“Utah’s New Law Could Be Part of Winning Pro-Life Strategy: New pro-life measure recognizes the father’s responsibility for his unborn child, and financially empowers the mother.”




As my career as a full-time member of the faculty at Brigham Young University rapidly winds down, I find myself thinking just a bit about how I got here and about the many factors that went into my getting here.


I’ve mentioned previously that it was probably hearing Hugh Nibley and Truman Madsen speak at a BYU Education Week in either Covina or West Covina, California, that first gave me the idea that I might like to attend Brigham Young University.


Once I arrived on the BYU campus in Provo, however, I was smitten.  I fell instantly in love with the place, but, even more so, with the sheer idea of it.  Although I’m not a Utahn by birth and arguably not by nature, BYU felt like home to me.  I always assumed, from that point on, that my life would be deeply connected with it.  In fact, it wasn’t so much that I hoped that I would come back to teach and work at BYU as that I simply, quietly, knew that I would.  Even though the places that I had long dreamed of living were either in Europe — an Anglophile who loves Alpine scenery, I vacillated between Great Britain, Switzerland, Austria, and Bavaria — or in New England or in the vicinity of Newport Beach, California.


But it was scarcely a done deal that I would return.  Several things had to happen to make that work out, and they did.


My chosen field of concentration — Arabic and Islamic studies — wasn’t exactly a BYU focus.  It was, of course, a focus at the University of Utah.  However, as a non-Utahn I’ve never felt any particular interest in (or rivalry with) that school, which, as I recall, is located near either Richfield or Tremonton.  So the odds were against me.


However, the Church and BYU decided to build a Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies on the slope of Mount Scopus, overlooking the Old City.  And that construction project became exceedingly controversial in Israel.  Many Israeli Jews imagined that it was intended to be a mission headquarters for Jewish conversions.  (Where they ever came up with the idea that Latter-day Saints are missionary minded, I’ll never know.)  And, in fact, very early on — as I know at first hand, having served on a Jerusalem Center committee after joining the faculty — there were some proposals, including a very tacky one that I vividly remember to this day, that would have justified that suspicion in spades.  But missionary purposes were never primary in the conception of the Center, if indeed Church and University officials ever seriously entertained them at all.  That memorably tacky proposal went absolutely nowhere and, very soon, it was clear that there was no point in suggesting such things.


One basis for Israeli Jewish suspicion was that, while we were building a Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, BYU had no program in Near Eastern studies back at its home campus.  I hasten to add that BYU wasn’t being duplicitous or sneaky:  Its conception of Near Eastern studies at the time, and at the Center still today, was primarily to teach the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (principally the gospels) on site, where their stories overwhelmingly occurred.


Still, the University now set about to create a Near Eastern studies faculty in Provo to go along with its prominent Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies facility in Israel.


In order to get a better feel for the Near East as the Center was being built, Dean Richard Cracroft of Humanities and Dean Robert Matthews of Religious Education (both now sadly departed) made a swing through Egypt.  My good friend Professor S. Kent Brown, who had directed my Jerusalem Study Abroad group and who had then provided space in his family’s apartment for me and my new wife while we searched for housing of our own in Cairo — he was there, by that point, on a fellowship, working in the Coptic Museum — wrote to me from back in the United States, advising me that, if I ever wanted to work at BYU, I should drop whatever I was doing, for as long as was needed (four days, I think, as it turned out), to show Deans Cracroft and Matthews around.


I did, and they became friends.  (Dean Cracroft, as it turns out, eventually presided over the Swtizerland Zürich Mission.)  I remember having them to dinner one night at our apartment in Digla/Ma‘adi, to the south of Caior on the eastern bank of the Nile.  They were clearly deeply impressed by such things as our toilet, which had to be flushed by fetching a bucket of water and pouring it into the bowl.  When I eventually visited BYU for interviews, Dean Cracroft took me out to lunch with Garold Davis, his associate dean.  “The good thing about Peterson,” he told Professor Davis (who also soon became a friend), “is that we can get him cheap.  I’ve seen how he lived in Cairo!”


My coming to BYU was also eased by my acquaintance with Dilworth B. Parkinson, of whom I had already heard several years before when I was a missionary in Switzerland.  He was something of a legend there, but not necessarily (in my case, anyhow) in a good sense.  After a short while as a missionary in Switzerland, he had been sent down to work with a district of missionaries in Beirut, Lebanon, which was under the stewardship of the Switzerland Zürich Mission because Swiss neutrality was very helpful at the time.  His ability with Arabic became famous, but one of the missionaries who had been there was brought back to Switzerland and blamed his transfer on Dil.  This missionary, whom I never met and whose name I can no longer remember, was apparently somewhat bitter and, consciously or not, circulated many unfavorable accounts about Elder Parkinson.


So I was horrified to hear that Dil (whom I had never met) was coming to Cairo, to spend a year there doing field research for his University of Michigan doctoral dissertation on the sociolinguistics of terms in address in Cairene colloquial dialect.  It took me about five minutes of speaking with him to realize that the image that I had of him was completely false.  He kindly served as a tutor to me as I studied Arabic there for my first year and then, after he was hired to teach Arabic at BYU — essentially founding the Arabic program at the University — he was instrumental in getting me hired, as well.


When I was hired, I was hired in some sense as a Jerusalem Center employee.  Via arcane accounting paths that I never really cared to explore and cannot fully explain, I have always been a Jerusalem Center employee, although assigned to and responsible to the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages.  And when I went over for several years to what became the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, the primary portion of my paycheck still came from the Center via the Department.  Or something like that.


Cairo was a great place for making Latter-day Saint (and other) friends, some of whom have remained close over our entire lifetimes.  Our branch president for much of the time that we were in Egypt was Arnold H. Green, who was a professor of modern Near Eastern history at the American University in Cairo.  A few years later, he too joined the BYU faculty, in the Department of History, where he would serve as the department chairman and also as the resident director of the Jerusalem Center.  Unfortunately, he passed away a few years back.  The other branch president that we had in Cairo was Doug Bradford, who came to Utah after years of service for the United States overseas and taught Arabic part-time in my department.  Another friend from Cairo, a native Egyptian non-member graphic artist whose (late) American wife was our Relief Society president, will be coming through Utah later this month, and we’re all very eager to see him.


Posted from Park City, Utah



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